Guest post by Jack Miller.
“I have a long-standing pet theory about Hawks’ comedies that I’m starting to question. The theory is that the comedies contain two different kinds of characters, pitched at different levels of abstraction: one more plausible and naturalistic, the other more stylized and exaggerated. And that the films document the perplexity of the more naturalistic characters as they are confronted by refugees from a different and wilder movie.” – Dan Sallitt
Many commentators have stumbled over themselves trying to describe the principles that inform the weirdly imbalanced and unstable world of Howard Hawks’ cinema. Historically speaking, this Indiana-born director of seemingly light genre pictures and screwball comedies was one of the first filmmakers to be reevaluated as an auteur by the French Cahiers du Cinéma crowd in the ’50s and ‘60s. In his movies, a younger generation of film buffs (among them future filmmakers Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette) saw not only a vulgar entertainer and a consummate craftsman, but a sophisticated artist whose personality could be potently felt from behind the camera, no matter what genre or mode he was working in. But what exactly does this “Hawksian” spirit entail, and how does Hawks allow that energy or presence to manifest itself throughout his films?
One quality of Hawksian cinema that most erudite students of his work seem to agree upon is that Hawks’ direction of actors is especially distinctive, and that the emphasis of this idiosyncratic performance style becomes meaningful in relation to a particular set of rhythmic directorial cadences found in the material. For example, in Hawks’ 1959 western Rio Bravo (the movie that’s generally considered to be his supreme masterpiece), the filmmaker prepares us for a conventional, generic western in terms of his sets, décor, costuming, music and establishing shots, and then he subsequently delivers a two-and-a-half-hour movie with almost no action scenes until the very end.
Rather, Rio Bravo becomes a graceful and relaxed “hang out” film, wherein the characters subtly test one another over the course of the film’s runtime within a series of confined and highly artificial spaces while they wait for encroaching chaos, a nihilistic void embodied by off-screen space, to approach them. The actors play down their roles here, performing as if they were in a smaller, faster, even darker movie than what a conventional epic western would typically require or lead us to expect. Their interactions, fraught with mysterious philosophical codes, become meaningful in relation to the audience’s knowledge of an approaching danger – mutual camaraderie becomes a means of holding back the darkness. This unsettling disparity in Hawks’ work between studio genre trappings and the existential play of performative gesture can feel downright scary in its unbridled tendencies toward experimentalism and a kind of non-narrative freefall; it’s a major reason why many people (myself included) consider Hawks a sublime and deeply complex artist.
If the contemporaneous American films of John Ford and Raoul Walsh sometimes feel like the cinematic equivalents of classical music in their orderly rationality and benign communal visions, Hawks’ cinema arguably comes closer to approximating the aesthetics of jazz in its exciting and deliciously unhinged alternations on varying levels of speed, intensity and improvisation. This can perhaps be observed most clearly in the break-neck bits of business surrounding social interaction in Hawks’ screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, possibly his best remembered and most celebrated films today among the general public.
In Bringing Up Baby (1938) — for me the greatest of the Hawks comedies — Cary Grant plays David Huxley, a mild-mannered and highly rational paleontologist who encounters (and eventually falls for) Katharine Hepburn’s Susan Vance, a figure of inspired lunacy and almost nightmarish intensity. Hepburn’s performance as Vance deserves to be regarded as one of the great creations of fiction: she embodies feminine carnality in a way that seems to frighten and attract Huxley simultaneously, and even more importantly, she represents a form of gleeful amorality through her display of a set of profoundly antisocial behaviors. She seemingly rejects all moral order and societal logic. Hawks pitches her character at a different level of psychological realism than he does Huxley: his reactions are logical and based in the reality of the film’s narrative fabric, whereas she exists as a kind of cartoonish abstraction. In this regard, Hepburn’s performance becomes the source of nihilism that will come to be relegated to the margins of off-screen space in later Hawks films like Rio Bravo.
The comedy of Hawks’ film is derived from documenting the highly stylized reactions that occur between the performers. Whether they are cavorting on a golf course, hanging out in a jail cell, or trying to recover Vance’s missing leopard Baby on a Connecticut farm, Grant and Hepburn treat the set like a kind of formal playground, running around, hurling bits of dialogue at each other, and always emoting primarily through exaggerated gestures. Huxley’s experience with Vance is less of a courtship in the conventional rom-com sense than it is a kind of elegant dance that he enacts around her. As this seductive and shapeless dance progresses, day moves into night, and Grant is pulled closer into Hepburn’s void of amorality. In the world of Hawksian comedy, to love someone is to transgress the boundaries of social order.
Bringing Up Baby was a major commercial flop upon release, initiating Hepburn’s infamous “box office poison” period that would last for the next two years until she made a comeback of sorts in public favor with the release of Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story in 1940. I suspect that the non-reception the film was subjected to on initial release can at least partially be chalked up to Hawks’ refusal or inability to ground Hepburn’s character in plausible signifiers of reality. A provocative alternative example of Hawks showing some concern for more earthbound matters can be seen in his garish color musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), a gaudy satire on capitalist excess that looks more relevant with each passing year. If the pleasures of Rio Bravo are derived from a disparity between performance and genre, and those of Baby essentially come out of a tension between two distinct performative styles, it might be observed that Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is fascinatingly structured on a central paradox: the critical readings of the film as a proto-feminist text and a capitalist satire seem to run parallel with its apparent status as an ideal consumerist product in and of itself, a glossy Technicolor star vehicle.
In this later comedy, showgirls Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy (Jane Russell) form the pair of Hawksian figures whose extraordinary rapport with one another exists at the center of the film. These glamorous women are the only characters which the film seems to perceive as intelligent; men are largely seen as grotesque, buffoonish objects of commodification. Here, Hawks renders his heroines’ seductions of men as seductions of the audience as well. Each musical dance number becomes a kind of sumptuous visual assault through its bold array of color changes, rapid cutting, sensuous feminine gestures and figural postures. This formal assault through the combined forces of mise-en-scène, montage and physical athleticism is perhaps what led critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to call the film “an impossible object — a Cinemascope of the mind, a capitalist Potemkin.”
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was famously a key influence on Jacques Rivette’s Nouvelle Vague classic Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974); while most people seem to think that this noted influence can be felt primarily in terms of the central position that female friendship holds in each film, it seems to me that this influence also extends to the ways in which the director regards his actors as important collaborators and creators in their own right. The liberated intermingling of authorial forces in Hawks’ cinema, the extraordinary role which actors are allowed to play in the creation of rhythmic energy in his work, is a major part of what makes him perhaps the most rich and inexhaustible of film artists.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.